Don’t let working all day with your computer negatively affect your health

Repetitive stress injury

By Enrique Serrano

We spend our days – and sometimes our nights – at our computers. Though we typically think of our office work as physically undemanding, lawyers, writers, coders and others who live in the glow of the monitor are easy prey for dangerous keyboards and aggressive mice, often ending up with what’s known by many as RSI.

RSI stands for repetitive stress injury, in which seemingly inoffensive but oft-repeated tasks, such as those required in using a computer, can cause physical changes that result in pain. This isn’t a strange or isolated phenomenon: A 2008 study showed that 68% of workers in the United Kingdom had suffered some sort of RSI.

When your back hurts, when your tired eyes turn red and start watering, or when your wrist begins to click or pop with even the simplest movements, you realize that it’s time to start taking care of yourself. Fortunately, there’s an app for that.

Workrave: a free program to prevent injuries at work

Workrave is a free, completely configurable program for Windows PCs and Linux that can help you prevent repetitive motion injuries. The software keeps track of your activity and warns you when you’ve been working for too long, prompting you to engage in some light exercise in the office or to take a break.

Reminder alter for work breaks

Workrave offers three types of built-in timers:

  • A microbreak timer. You will be prompted to take a very quick break after an uninterrupted typing streak to ensure that you give yourself some rest.
  • A rest break timer. During long work sessions you will be prompted to take a short break and to perform some easy, quick exercises.
  • A daily work limit. The main purpose of this timer is to limit your daily computer usage, but you can also shift your focus to less risky work activities such as reviewing printed documents.
Work timers in Workrave

Because Workrave measures real work activity and not just time by taking your keystrokes and mouse movement into account, it doesn’t suggest that you take breaks when they aren’t needed.

You can postpone a break if it falls in the middle of something important – but Workrave can also force the user to stop working by blocking the keyboard and even the screen. The downside is that it can be somewhat distracting from work (but, in fact, that’s the point if you really care about your health.)

Skip or postpone work break

Statistics fans will be happy to know that Workrave keeps track of keystrokes, clicks and distance traversed with the mouse in addition to daily computer usage and breaks taken.

How to install and configure Workrave

Workrave is easy to install: Download the software for your platform, then run the installer.

Once you have Workrave on your PC, it’s a good idea to configure it to run when your computer starts so you won’t forget to use it.

Starting Workrave with Windows

While running, Workrave shows up as a little white sheep icon on the taskbar. Double-click that icon and you’ll see counters indicating the time till the next microbreak, rest break and daily limit.

Right-clicking the taskbar icon or the inside of the expanded Workrave window brings up the Options menu. By selecting Preferences and then Timers you can adjust the time between breaks and the duration of breaks for all of the timers.

The next (important) step is to set up breaks that work for you. I found the default break values rather frequent, and, because I’m not recovering from an RSI, taking fewer breaks works better for me. I chose a 10-second minibreak every 10 uninterrupted work minutes, a five-minute rest every uninterrupted work hour, and an optimistic daily limit of 8 hours.

User preferences in Workrave

I understand that the effectiveness of this software relies on your heeding the instructions, and Workrave is actually quite flexible when it comes to postponing breaks or even entering the quiet mode to prevent any distraction, but I prefer to keep control of my keyboard and screen all the time, without allowing the system to enforce breaks. For this reason, I set the Block mode to No Blocking.

Exercises suggested by Workrave to prevent RSI

Workrave’s suggested exercises mostly involve moving your elbows, shoulders and wrists; stretching your arms or fingers; and relaxing your eyes. They’re easy and fast and can be carried out in the office during one of those short breaks – you may not even have to leave your chair.

Exercises to perform at work

At a Glance: Workrave

  • The exercises and breaks suggested by Workrave can help you prevent eyestrain and RSI.
  • The program measures real activity – not just time – so it tells you to take a break only when a break actually makes sense.
  • Workrave allows you to postpone a break, enforce the rest time or skip it entirely.
  • Intervals between breaks and the duration of each break are completely configurable.

Some of the suggested exercises, though, are a bit embarrassing to be performed in an office: stretching in front of your workmates may feel weird to some. On the other hand, they aren’t any worse than the ones that are suggested for travelers on long-distance plane trips – and a little embarrassment beats having to quit working because you’re in pain.

The program offers insightful tips on ways to take care of your health at work. For example, I learned that the best way to relax your eyes is to cover them with your open hands while keeping your eyelids open and look into the darkness of your palms.

Workrave is a useful, highly configurable free software program whose benefits – the prevention of RSI – easily outweigh the small sacrifice of performing some light exercise or taking a break from time to time.

This review was sponsored by The Civil Litigator, a comprehensive database of verdicts in the Midwest that can help you find expert witnesses and keep up with jury decisions. To learn more, contact